If you watch movies, listen to music, or own a phone, You’re probably familiar with subscriptions.
At least, your wallet is
Which, for companies, are pure gold Or, green, I guess.
Instead of selling you today, and tomorrow, and next week, They only need to convince
you once, and the money keeps coming.
A steady, predictable stream of revenue.
Because each customer is so valuable, they can focus more on keeping them than doing
anything and everything to get more.
But it’s no longer just newspapers and magazines, now it’s everything:
Music, Movies, Food, Games, Storage, Clothes, Razors, Makeup, Software, Cars, animal bones?
Seriously - Bonebox ”includes various osteological specimens such as skulls, claws, and teeth”
for just $24.99 a month Ooo-kay?!
Why does every business need to be a subscription?
Where does it end?
Let’s divide subscriptions into two categories.
Services, like Netflix, Prime, Lootcrate, and Spotify, kinda have to be subscriptions
Sure, you can buy music and movies individually, but here, you get everything.
40 million songs on Apple Music times the usual dollar twenty nine would be $51 million
dollars - so, yeah.
Subscription boxes, which send you new things in the mail every month, are services because
they’re more about fun and surprise than the stuff itself.
And then there are products - things that could be sold, but here are rented.
And this is where things get hairy You don’t have to be a master Googler or Binger, or
DuckDuckGoer, but, boy do those sound awkward, to find a million and a half people criticizing
this business model.
But it’s not actually subscriptions they’re angry about, nobody’s complaining about
Netflix or Spotify, it’s really this second category - especially software.
When companies want to reach in your wallet every month until you die for what could be
a simple, one-time purchase, it feels a lot like a cash grab,
And, sometimes, it totally is.
Adobe switched to a monthly fee precisely to increase profit.
But it’s not always so simple, Even when they seem unnecessary, subscriptions can be
good for everyone, including you and I.
Companies usually don’t explain why, and when they do, it’s easy to see as just an
excuse to make more money, but there is a why.
And since my thing is taking complicated, controversial topics and trying to explain
them in too little time - let’s get to it…
The idea of a rental is nothing new, we rent apartments, and cars, and if you live in Alaska,
where there are still 6 Blockbusters, movies.
But, nobody wants to rent, say, their lamp.
When you don’t have to, why would you?
Owning is just simpler, and usually, cheaper.
Losing what we already own is especially frustrating.
Apps like Ulysses and Autodesk were a one-time purchase, then one day, you get an email:
I know you already bought this, but if you want to keep getting updates, now it costs
$5 a month.
k thanks bye.
Ulysses was absolutely flooded with 1 star reviews.
Probably the most life the Mac App Store’s ever seen…
And fifty thousand people signed a Change.org petition against Adobe.
Which, as we know, is very effective…at spamming your email
But here’s the problem: The way most people think about software just isn’t realistic.
Remember that lamp?
what if every year you got this popup: Hey, you need to update to a new version of your
If you don’t, it’ll be vulnerable to burglars.
Sometimes it goes smoothly, sometimes it permanently changes your wall sockets.
Maybe to these cute little ones from Denmark.
And you think, What the heck?
I bought that lamp and now it’s suddenly incompatible with my house for reasons completely
beyond my control?
The house is your operating system, the lamp, your software.
Programming may seem like build once - collect profit forever, but if an app isn’t updated,
Technology just moves way too fast.
Knowing this, do you really want to own that lamp?
Truly owning software means owning all its bugs and future incompatibility.
Maybe your answer is yes, we’ll get to that later.
But me, if I really depend on something, and there’s a chance it’ll break in a year,
well, I’d rather rent it from someone who maintains it.
Fixing bugs is like Sisyphus endlessly pushing his boulder up the mountain only for it to
fall back down.
You can’t expect developers to do that forever just because you gave them 99 cents three
You might say “Obviously these apps don’t need subscriptions because they did just fine
before” - but the truth is, they mostly didn’t…
Big companies always find a way to earn a profit, Adobe has the power and prominence
to ask $53 a month, and make billions doing it.
But many apps, some of the best apps, are made by a single person, or a small team of
They compete with 2, 3 million others, and a feeling that if you can’t hold something,
it shouldn’t cost anything.
So, unless you trademark the word “Candy”, seriously that actually happened, or spend
millions advertising, your sales look like this: A huge spike in the beginning, maybe
some seasonal bumps, and then, almost nothing.
You might make half your salary on the first day, but by the 20th or 50th, things don’t
look so good.
So you have a few options:
You can get more customers - Do some marketing, keep updating the app, and cross your fingers.
Or, more accurately, pray to the App Store Gods
Sometimes this can work.
But the App Store isn’t like YouTube, doing everything it can to bring audiences to your
videos, Right, YouTube?
Even a great app can get stuck in a corner and never be found.
And eventually, everyone who needs your app will already have it.
Plenty of happy customers, and no more income for you.
Or: if sales are so good at the beginning, just release as many paid updates as possible.
Again, sometimes it works.
But it can also be a dangerous trap, because the incentive is to release as many paid updates
as you can.
Just enough new features to make people pay, but not so many that you can’t do it again
in a few months.
And sooner or later, it’ll be good enough for 99% of us, but hey, gotta keep making
money, so you’ll keep cramming in new, unnecessary features.
That was Microsoft Office.
What I ask from Word is pretty basic: when I press a key on my keyboard, I want that
same letter to show on my screen.
ahem Take notes, MacBook Pro keyboard
And I guess fonts and tables and images are cool too.
But I have absolutely zero need for 3D pie charts or smart tags, or research tools, or
a talking paperclip.
Actually, I take that last back, Clippy.
Office was so profitable, Microsoft kept adding, and adding, and adding, until it forgot Word
is, just, ya know, a place to write stuff.
At this point, I’ll just use Google Docs, where I actually know what the buttons do.
For many apps, neither option is sustainable.
And even if you feel zero sympathy for developers, it’s in your best interest to find a solution:
Because if you rely on an app, for your business, or hobby, or security, you want to incentivize
its developer to care as much as you do.
We can say companies should update their apps forever, and always answer support tickets,
or we can design a system where they actually want to.
For many apps, that’s a subscription - taking what you would’ve paid upfront and handing
it out over time.
If developers want to keep getting paid, they want to keep you happy.
Over time, subscriptions cost more, but for that, you’re guaranteed updates, and support,
Plus, it rewards the apps you use the longest.
In some industries, these better incentives are even more desperately needed:
For news companies, the goal is more clicks, more views, more ads, usually the worst kind
Clickbait only stops if clicks stop being profitable, which is the promise of subscriptions
like Blendle and Inkl.
One price for all the articles you want.
Or, a small micropayment per article, refunded if it turns out to be clickbait.
The goal is no longer to deceive you, but keep you subscribed.
Subscriptions give sites like Above Avalon, Kottke, and Macstories freedom to make quality
content on really specific topics, instead of whatever it takes to attract huge audiences.
It also lets you and I try things out, maybe you only need a service occasionally, in which
case you can subscribe only when you actually need it.
But because people think only of services as subscriptions, products often try to argue
they’re actually a service.
Something like: “We store and sync your data, which costs us money” But not very
All this does is create distrust.
Developers should be up-front: “What you’re really paying for is longevity, which is in
everyone’s best interest.”
But there is a catch…
One movie ticket is an entire month of Netflix, and then some.
Factor in popcorn savings, and make it a lifetime
You could own one single album or every noise ever made on planet Earth for the price of
a few Cups of Coffee.
But when everything is the price of one or two cups of coffee, you can very quickly end
up buying a whole Starbucks.
Say you subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Dropbox, and BlueApron.
That’s over a hundred dollars a month.
Add Creative Cloud, YouTube TV, and the New York Times, and it’s another hundred.
And this is just the beginning
Apple takes 30% of an app’s revenue, but for long-term subscriptions, now only 15.
So more and more businesses are going to make use.
For movies alone, there’s already Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, and soon, Disney,
So, not everything can or should be a subscription.
Things you use only occasionally and don’t rely on have no reason to be,
or should at least have another option for people who fall into that category:
The app Sketch finds a good balance - One upfront price, with one year of updates.
You can treat it like a subscription, or you can not.
Another solution is Bundles - one price for multiple subscriptions.
Setapp, for example, does this with mac applications.
And more companies will follow: Apple could have one for Apple Music, streaming video,
iCloud storage, maybe some other things.
Amazon Prime has shown how well this strategy can work.
Students get Spotify and Hulu together for less than either separately.
Or, how about a subscription to be a great student, on topics like physics, computer
science, and problem solving?
Brilliant helps you learn new things in a way that you actually understand, not just
memorize for the next test.
Last term I took a math class covering some differential equations, all pretty vague and
theoretical, but after looking at the lesson on Brilliant, I really wish I had known about
It starts by explaining why the concept actually matters, and what it’s all about, with visuals,
and questions to give you instant feedback.
If you answer incorrectly, Brilliant doesn’t just mark your answer red and move on, it
helps you understand how to get it right.
If you’re a student, or like learning new things, find a topic that peaks your interest
and dive in.
I recommend Computer Science Algorithms - it’s pretty interesting, and gives you a peak at
how our technology works.
And speaking of subscriptions, it’s really the ideal: premium is one low price, they
keep adding new topics all the time, and you have the freedom to jump around to learn exactly
what interests you most.
You can support PolyMatter by going to the link in the description - brilliant.org/Polymatter.
And the first 200 people to use that will get 20% off the annual premium subscription.
Thanks to Brilliant, and to everyone who gives it a try.